Kwibuka 20: The crying that I will never forget

I spent the day with thousands of others who jammed Kigali’s soccer stadium to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

It was only minutes into the ceremony when the screaming began. At first, it was just one person. High up in a far corner of the stadium where close to 30,000 had gathered, the same stadium where thousands took refuge when Rwanda slid into the abyss after the killing began through the night April 6-7, 1994.

But then, like an echo, the screams began on the other side of the stadium, then moments later, just behind me, not far from where scores of presidents, former heads of state and diplomats had gathered with Rwandan President Paul Kagame for the elaborate commemoration ceremonies, another person began to shriek and wail, and then another, and another, another.

Teams of volunteers, wearing fluorescent vests, rushed up into the stands to tend to those experiencing the flashbacks, then, carry them down below the stands to makeshift trauma centres.

I had seen this before, when I came here a decade ago to report for the Toronto Star on events marking the tenth anniversary of the genocide. Genocide survivors among those assembled in the stadium were overcome by traumatic flashbacks, some screaming as if running for their lives, or beseeching their attackers to show mercy.

But somehow, this time, it seemed more intense, despite the passage of time. And strangely, while the gathered diplomats cringed, or craned their necks to see who was in distress, the genocide survivor sharing his testimony carried on with his gruesome tale, followed by dignitaries who launched into speeches, despite the mounting chorus of crying.

It also seemed ironic that there were more international media crammed into holding areas covering the anniversary than had ever reported on the genocide itself in 1994, when we simply missed the story.

The commemoration had begun with a military band in bright uniforms, playing from a list of Protestant hymns: O God our help in ages past, Abide with Me, Nearer My God to Thee.

One of the main events was a grand, theatrical spectacle on the stadium floor, not unlike the kind of dancing you see at Olympic opening ceremonies. While actors recounted episodes from Rwanda’s history and the genocide, hundreds of performers draped in flowing grey gowns and carrying single white roses streamed into the stadium.

At one point, as a narrator mimicked the orders of the genocidaires – “finish them off, do your work” – the dancers ran about the soccer field, then dropped like corpses. More cries went up in every corner of the stadium.

It went on like this for several intense hours, through shared survivor testimony, speeches by Rwanda’s foreign minister, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and finally Kagame himself.

But for all the power of the words spoken, it is the crying that I will never forget.

Allan Thompson is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication. He is the project leader of Carleton’s Rwanda Initiative. He was in Rwanda to join Rwandans for the 20th commemoration of the Genocide against the Tutsi. He posted these reflections to Facebook and they were reprinted in the local newspaper, the New Times.

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